Much of the focus – with good reason – has been on the 200,000 or so Americans that have died as a result of COVID-19, a number so awful and ultimately avoidable that the Trump administration has tried to ignore its existence.

But many of the other Americans who contract the novel coronavirus will suffer a variety of symptoms for months, and perhaps may never fully recover. These patients, known as “long-haulers,” need better treatment, and understanding, if they are going to regain their previous quality of life.

Long-haulers put the lie to the idea that people who are not hospitalized or who do not die from COVID-19 are “mild” cases. They often go through months of illness, with varying and unpredictable symptoms not usually associated with the coronavirus: gastrointestinal distress, extreme fatigue, irregular heartbeat, short-term memory loss.

The Portland Press Herald spoke to a few such Mainers last month. They include a 69-year-old Corinth man who survived 39 days in the hospital but is still weak and suffers from memory loss, and doesn’t think he’ll ever be the same, and two women, a 40-year-old from Cumberland and a 33-year-old from Hallowell, both of whom contracted the virus months ago but still have headaches, joint pain and memory loss, and can’t move around without getting winded.

Many people in their position across the country report finding their pain underestimated and their problems misdiagnosed by health care professionals who, particularly in the early months of the pandemic, thought those who didn’t die from the virus would recover quickly, as with the seasonal flu.

Online support groups have sprung up for people in this situation, with thousands of participants seeking validation for the pain and suffering that will not go away. With the country averaging nearly 40,000 new reported cases of COVID-19 every day, the number of Americans who end up with long-term problems will continue to climb.

There needs to be more attention on COVID long-haulers, as well as more focus on research into the long-term effects of viral infections.

No one with these long-lasting symptoms should be locked out of treatment because they didn’t test positive for COVID-19 when they had early in the pandemic – when tests were often not available for people with “mild” cases. And no one should be denied treatment if they exhibit these symptoms but show no COVID antibodies, as has been the result in many long-hauler cases.

The fight against COVID-19 will not be over when the last person has gotten the virus and recovered. It could last for years as millions of Americans deal with the debilitating aftereffects.

As one public health professor told The Atlantic, “Death is not the only thing that counts. We must also count lives changed.”


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